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New York District Attorney Indicted For Covering Up Police Violence

U.S. Attorney says the evidence against him is “overwhelming”

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New York District Attorney Indicted For Covering Up Police Violence

U.S. Attorney says the evidence against him is “overwhelming”

In a rare turn of events, a prosecutor is being prosecuted for his role in covering up police violence. District Attorney Thomas Spota of Suffolk County, New York was one of two law enforcement officials indicted on Wednesday for obstructing a federal investigation into a brutal beating by a former county police chief.

Spota and Christopher McPartland, who leads a corruption-fighting team in the prosecutor’s office, allegedly helped Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke hide that he punched a handcuffed prisoner in the head in 2012. The prisoner, Christopher Loeb, had been arrested for stealing personal items from Burke’s SUV, including sex toys and pornography. He was brought to the police station and shackled in an interrogation room, where Burke proceeded to beat him brutally.

Burke was ultimately convicted and sentenced to 46 months in prison last November. But the FBI also launched an investigation into a possible cover-up of the incident, and Spota and McPartland were allegedly involved in a “four-year attempt to obstruct that investigation.” According to a court document filed Wednesday, they tried to “to obstruct the federal investigation by, among other means, using intimidation, threats and corrupt persuasion to pressure multiple witnesses, including co-conspirators, not to cooperate with the federal investigation, to provide false information, including false testimony under oath, and to withhold relevant information to prosecutors.”

U.S. Attorney Bridget Rohde says there is “overwhelming” evidence — photographs, telephone and financial records, witnesses, and police documents — that points to the officials’ involvement. They are indicted on multiple counts, including obstruction of justice, witness tampering, and conspiracy, and could spend 20 years behind bars.

“Instead of upholding their oaths, these defendants allegedly abused the power of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, attempted to cover up the assault of an in-custody defendant, and attempted to thwart a federal grand jury investigation,” Rohde said. “Abuses of power by law enforcement authorities cannot and will not be tolerated. There are serious consequences to such actions.”

It is widely known that local prosecutors rarely hold police accountable for officer violence. The two groups have a cozy relationship, working together to investigate and convict criminal defendants. Police officers also have the law of the land on their side; they are given reasonable doubt when making split-second decisions that lead to bodily harm or death. Moreover, district attorneys themselves are rarely prosecuted for misconduct. They wield a ton of discretion and generally operate with impunity because few people in positions of authority are scrutinizing what they do behind closed doors.

For a district attorney to face prosecution for covering up police brutality is practically unheard of.

Spota is no stranger to controversy. According to a Newsday investigation published in May 2016, his office, with the help of McPartland and Burke, “cultivated informants, sent co-conspirators undercover wearing wires, conducted surveillance, issued subpoenas and obtained warrants to wiretap more than a dozen phone numbers,” to probe corrupt public officials. But instead of bringing criminal charges against the perpetrators, Spota allegedly negotiated with them. He’s been accused of similar behavior by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, who publicly called for the district attorney’s resignation in 2015.

Facing these new criminal charges, Spota announced his resignation on Thursday.

Tennessee Prosecutor Wants to Teach Men to Stop Buying Sex

Do these so-called “john schools” actually hurt women more than help them?


Tennessee Prosecutor Wants to Teach Men to Stop Buying Sex

Do these so-called “john schools” actually hurt women more than help them?

Can a district attorney teach men to stop buying sex? A Tennessee prosecutor plans to try.

In the ongoing battle against sex trafficking, Assistant District Attorney Tammy Meade of Davidson County wants men who buy sex to know they are both a problem and a potential solution. She is offering those who solicit sex, nicknamed “johns,” an opportunity to avoid prosecution and take part in the fight against the local sex trade. In order to get their criminal charges dropped, all arrested clients have to do is attend “john school,” a class in which students are to learn, in a word, empathy — empathy for the women whose sex they purchase. But according to experts, the schools fail to take into account the needs and perspectives of the sex workers themselves.

The Davidson County school seeks to educate johns about victims and the potential ways that they, as buyers, are contributing to women’s exploitation. Taught by Meade and trafficking survivors, the intention of the course is to put a “dent” in the practice of purchasing sex. As an added benefit, participation fees are funneled into services for trafficking survivors, including services for the very women who teach the class.

According to Meade, sex workers are women who lack control — women who are exploited by men — rather than women who make an informed, conscious choice to engage in the sex industry. “It’s okay for a man to buy a woman like she is something off the Walmart shelf, but it is bad that she is providing the service? We have to tell them that’s not okay,” she recently told local news station WSMV. Apologetic men reportedly approach her after every class. “If we can stop the johns from buying, we get in and serve the women who know no different,” Meade said.

Last year, arrested clients outnumbered sex workers in Davidson County. John school is painted as a win-win for men and women alike: fewer men will end up with a criminal record and fewer women will be preyed on and purchased if they participate.

Meade is not the only prosecutor to latch on to the diversion option for men who buy sex. The first john school was introduced by the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office in 1995. Similar courses have been springing up ever since, including a $250 class established by Nashville’s former mayor in the 1990s. In 2008, a Department of Justice study concluded john school students in San Francisco were less likely to purchase sex than those who did not participate. A study of john schools in British Columbia found that participants reported a change in attitude toward prostitution.

However, advocates of sex decriminalization and workers’ rights — and sex workers themselves — say these programs, along with the narratives of victimization they perpetuate, may harm women far more than they help.

The premise of john school and cracking down on “demand” is still driven by the idea that sex work needs to be policed in the first place, which creates barriers to safety and exacerbates stigma, studies show. In Sweden, the criminalization of clients is linked to an increase in violence against sex workers, as well as negative health outcomes. If people are deterred from buying sex due to the threat of an arrest, workers have fewer options to choose clients they feel comfortable with and are, therefore, more at risk of encountering someone who could put them in danger. They are more likely to move to isolated areas that are less familiar and less safe. Fear of police interference also hastens the decision-making process, so workers’ ability to screen clients, negotiate condom use, and discuss boundaries is also jeopardized.

A study in Vancouver found that violence against women remained stagnant after the government embraced a demand-centered approach to policing. Sex workers there also said the focus on clientele endangered them and stripped them of options. “It pisses me off that they [the police] are there because basically what it comes down to is the shortest time that I’m out there, the shorter I’m on the street and the better I’m paid,” a woman named Lisa told researchers. “But you [police] stand out there and you fuck up my business and scare away my dates. The longer I’m out there my chances of getting sick, raped, robbed, beat up whatever are greater.”

According to Kate D’Admo, an advocate who has worked with several organizations dedicated to sex workers’ rights, there is no evidence to suggest that john schools actually decrease trafficking or prostitution. Meanwhile, the classes fail to provide concrete resources — such as housing or access to childcare — and alternative job opportunities for the women they are intended to help. “If you want to get someone out of the sex trade, give them options,” she told In Justice Today. “None of these things are about more options. They’re just about making the one option that many people have — even if they are trafficking victims — more unsafe.” The lingering threat of arrest keeps sex workers silent and in the shadows.

Prosecutors do not usually seek input from advocacy organizations when designing their john schools, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Womenreported in 2011. It is also not clear that these schools are equipped to help sex workers. Other organizations can arguably do more than john schools to help women who do not want to be involved in this work, D’Admo says, because they are speaking directly to sex workers and asking what their needs are, versus talking and making assumptions about them to clients. Community-based outreach programs are also better equipped to screen sex workers and connect them to life-saving social services — investing in women’s own sense of agency instead of controlling their movement and choices. These programs can help workers build trust in people outside of law enforcement who won’t judge or police their bodies. They can also create safe spaces that are free of stigma and encourage women to talk openly about their work, which in turn creates opportunities for victims to seek help from people they feel comfortable around, says D’Admo.

D’Admo and organizations like GAATW argue that the legal framework used to think about sex work should be “rights-affirming” — based on the idea that many women in the industry do have agency — as opposed to a victim-centered narrative that bolsters criminalization.

“While we can talk about the assumptions of people’s circumstances and lives, there’s a very real impact here,” D’Adamo said. “While at the same time predicating this entire argument on them being victims, you’re increasing victimization.”

Thanks to Burke Butler.

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Despite Public Outcry Over Pay-to-Play Justice, Prosecutors Just Don’t Get it

Mecklenburg County Courthouse. By Upstateherd
Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Despite Public Outcry Over Pay-to-Play Justice, Prosecutors Just Don’t Get it

Mecklenburg, North Carolina District Attorney R. Andrew Murray doesn’t seem to understand the problem with the county’s deferred prosecutions system, even after a group of faith leaders held a press conference Monday morning, arguing that the current system discriminates against the poor most in need of help.

The protest was timed with a hearing in the case of Charlotte resident Rahman Bethea, who was arrested and charged in March 2016 for stealing audio-visual components from his workplace. Bethea, who already was paying over $500 monthly for child support, found himself in a crushing financial situation — he lost his home and was forced to ask his mother to take care of his young son while Bethea was homeless. He applied for other jobs, but no one would give him a chance because he had a pending criminal hearing that appeared on background checks.

Then the DA’s office offered Bethea a chance at redemption: he was eligible for a deferred prosecution program whereby Bethea would be able to go on probation for a set period of time and avoid a conviction on his record. The program theoretically offers a second chance for people to avoid a criminal conviction, which has serious collateral consequences and can affect someone’s ability to go to school or get a job.

But redemption came with a price — $900. Before he could qualify for the deferred prosecution program, Bethea needed to pay down the restitution he owed to $1,000 or lower. (It was set at around $1900.) That was $800 too much. While Bethea managed to scrape together $100, he couldn’t afford any more without a new job. Trapped in the cycle common to many, Bethea wasn’t sure where to turn.

Deferred prosecution agreements are available to first-time offenders with no previous convictions. Similar to the same deferred prosecutions agreements regularly used with corporate defendants, a deferred prosecution agreement allows an individual to pay a fee and go on probation for two years (usually) in lieu of pleading guilty. Once the probation period ends, the slate is wiped clean. It is as if the crime hadn’t happened at all.

But it’s not that simple for people who cannot afford to pay. Bethea, for example, struggled to come up with the money required to enter the diversion program. Although there is no exact figure on how many people cannot afford deferred prosecution programs, almost half of Americans, according to one study, cannot cover an unexpected $400 expense. Across the county, advocates and civil-rights attorneys have drawn attention to these formal and informal debtors’ prisons — and exposed the many ways that our justice system relies on money and ensnares the poor, from cash bail, to fines and fees.

At a hearing last Wednesday, Elizabeth Gerber, Bethea’s public defender, argued that Mecklenburg’s deferred prosecution program discriminates against the poor, pointing to the fact that someone able to easily pay the money can access a benefit that a poor person cannot. Deferred prosecution programs and diversion programs almost always require some form of payment in order to participate. Less obvious are the ways that this pay-to-play system disadvantages people who cannot afford the payments. When the poor fail to pay, they end up facing even more serious consequences and greater barriers to reentering society post conviction.

In Mecklenburg County, the prosecutors decide who is or isn’t eligible for deferred prosecutions based on the statute. And, while the program overall is innovative and works well for those who can afford to pay, Gerber has argued that it still denies a second chance to those who probably need it most — the poor, who simply don’t have the money to pay for a second chance.

The Charlotte Observer reported on Bethea’s plight, and several people volunteered to donate money to help Bethea cover the $800 he couldn’t afford. Religious leaders called out for reform, calling the current system unethical. Said Rev. Rodney Sadler, “The courts have a middle-class standard and when poor people get caught in that system they get ground up we need to find a way for poor people to have adequate access to the division program.” Despite the public outcry, a judge denied Bethea’s motion this week, and he faces a trial in November for a felony.

DA Murray appeared to be unmoved in the press. He said in a press statement, “Without [the restitution limit], the DA’s office would be turning its back on innocent victims of crime.” He shucked any responsibility on the part of his office to give the poor access to diversion programs — arguing that religious organizations should set up their own way to fund the poor.

Update: In Justice Today received the following comment from the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office:

The Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office created our deferred prosecution program to allow for restorative justice. This program gives eligible offenders the opportunity to take responsibility for their actions and earn a dismissal of a non-violent crime, avoiding the long-term consequences of a criminal conviction. A crucial aspect of this program must consider the rights of innocent crime victims.

Many victims experience severe financial hardships as the result of the crimes committed against them. Someone who steals lawn equipment from a landscaper struggling to make ends meet has deprived that person of their means to earn a living. A single mother whose car is stolen loses her transportation to the job that provides for her children. Those are the kinds of incidents that can push families — by no fault of their own — deeper into poverty. They are innocent victims facing financial hardships caused by those who made the decision to commit a crime.

The DA’s Office must weigh its duty to protect victims with the understanding that there are offenders who should be given a second chance. The program requires the balance of restitution to be no more than $1,000 before they can participate in deferred prosecution. Without this requirement, the DA’s Office would be turning its back on innocent victims of crime. This office routinely allows offenders who cannot immediately meet this requirement lengthy periods of time so that they can become eligible for the program. This office does not handle any funds involved in this program and all restitution goes directly to the crime victim.

The DA’s Office remains open to conversation about the deferred prosecution program. We have, and will continue to engage the Public Defender’s Office and other community leaders in conversations about the deferred prosecution process and how, as a community, we can all work toward a fair system for both victims and defendants.

The Mecklenburg County DA’s Office is not blind to inequities in the criminal justice system. In fact, this office has been working for years to address these issues. From implicit bias training for prosecutors to the office’s involvement in the national Safety and Justice Challenge, the office is a leader among prosecutors and the criminal justice community in working to combat inequities. Our deferred prosecution program is consistent with our commitment to fairness. This program is about restorative justice in which a victim’s losses must also be considered.

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